TUESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2021
...he couldn't quite name its color: When the sixth most important book arrived, we greedily fell upon it.
As you may recall from yesterday's session, the start of that book—Word and Object—finds its author, Professor Quine, sitting at a "familiar desk."
The desk was manifesting its presence. As we noted yesterday, the sixth most important philosophy book of the 20th century begins in the manner shown:
This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. Physical things generally, however remote, become known to us only through the effects which they help to induce at our sensory surfaces. Yet our common-sense talk of physical things goes forward without benefit of explanations in more intimately sensory terms. Entification begins at arm's length; the points of condensation in the primordial conceptual scheme are things glimpsed, not glimpses...
In the opening sentence of Word and Object, Professor Quine was at his familiar desk, discussing entification.
The book was published in 1960. Forty-four years earlier, Bertrand Russell had been positioned in a similar way at the start of an earlier book.
That book was called The Problems of Philosophy. We've occasionally been moved to ask who such "problems" are problems for, but back in 1916, they were problems for Russell, an extraordinarily high-IQ person who was also deeply involved in the affairs of the world.
In 2009, Professor Quine was named in a survey as the fifth most important philosopher of the previous two hundred years. Russell, a bit of a polymath, was listed as third most important.
At the start of his earlier book, Russell seems to be sitting at a table rather than at a desk. But, before we learn that fact, he teases us with this, the start of his second paragraph:
In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong...
We're "very likely to be wrong," Russell seems to say, even about our own immediate experiences! Only after a great amount of thought should we feel entitled to say that we actually know the things we're inclined to believe.
In some sense, something like that could even be true. But then, as this paragraph continues, we learn where Russell is as he makes these claims.
Rather, we learn where it seems to him that he is:
...It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.
We've now seen the whole of Russell's second paragraph. The specific example we've been asked to consider is this:
As Russell writes this early paragraph, it seems to him that he's sitting in a chair, positioned in front of a table. It seems to him that it's a table of a certain shape.
He even believes that other people will see that same table and that same chair should they venture into his room. Presumably, this assumes that Russell is actually in his room.
It seems to Russell that he's in that chair and is perched in front of that table. But based upon this paragraph, much careful discussion will be required before he or we can be sure that he has stated these claims "in a form that is wholly true." It almost seems that statements like these are "very likely to be wrong!"
Is there anything "wrong" with this sort of thing? Not necessarily, no. In fairness, though, we have to say this:
By the time we get to paragraph 3, the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years may almost seem to be pushing things, if only a tiny bit. Returning to the aforementioned table, Russell offers this about the table's color:
To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table—it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.
To peruse the whole of Russell's book, you can just click here.
Returning to the table. In the dark, we can't see it at all. So how can we say that it's brown?
Also, the table might even appear to be red if we see it under a bright red light—and some people are "color-blind." To avoid favoritism, we're thereby compelled to deny that, "in itself," the table has any one particular color at all!
How can we say a table is brown when it can't be seen in the dark? Russell, the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years, opened this book as shown. Forty-four years later, the fifth most important philosopher opened his most influential book in a similar manner.
Is there anything "wrong" with such musings? We're willing to tell you no. Meanwhile, though, children are drowning in the sea, or are being trampled to death on their way to an airport in Kabul. Many events will be taking place as we instruct teen-aged college students to reason, or to consider reasoning. in the somewhat peculiar way shown.
By any measure, Bertrand Russell was a brilliant scholar. He was also a devoted participant in the affairs of the wider world. Tomorrow, we'll offer an example—an example drawn from the last few weeks in Albert Einstein's remarkable life.
Russell was a brilliant scholar. But all through the last century, various toffs were arrayed at various tables and desks, comfortably seated in chairs at the club, making claims as silly as those which appear at the start of Russell's book.
We refer to claims in which a table has no specific color because it can't be seen in the dark, or in which a quarter isn't really round because it looks a different way if you hold it on an angle. There's nothing "wrong" with musings like these—unless we think about the questions which go unexplored as these explorations take place.
Throughout the bulk of the twentieth century, scholars sat in comfortable chairs at the club and engaged in elaborate musings—elaborate musings which might seem somewhat odd. In 1916, Russell sat in front of a table whose color he couldn't necessarily state.
Forty-four years later, Quine sat at a familiar desk and was soon discussing "sense data," whatever they are or were.
Viewed from one angle, this is the world Wittgenstein entered in October 1911, when he journeyed from his native Vienna to Trinity College in Cambridge and presented himself, unannounced, at Russell's rooms.
We'd say there was, and still is, fault to be found with the world Wittgenstein entered. For today, we'll make our statement in the form of a question:
Have the logicians fled our world? Borrowing from Mariel Hemingway, how often are their concerns ours?
Tomorrow: Sitting at a familiar desk, Quine's thoughts turned to "sense data"